"We were sitting around just watching TV, it was late at night," Winnipegger Lee Doerksen says. "I heard fluttering. And then I heard it again, and then I heard it again and it was aggressive. I thought, 'What's going on in there?'"

Doerksen lives in a home in River Heights on Yale Avenue that was built in 1913. It has a plain looking brown brick chimney that extends from a few feet above the roof down in a rectangular column through his three-storey home.

After letting the scratching and muted flapping sounds go on for four months unchecked, Doerksen decided to call a chimney sweep with Ye Olde Soot Sweepers to get to the bottom of what was poking around above his fireplace.

"The inspector looked up and [gasped] and said, 'There's a chimney swift in your chimney!' I had no idea what he was talking about.'"

Jeff Warkentin, the inspector in Doerksen's home that day, was talking about a charcoal-coloured, cigar-shaped migratory bird that has declined in numbers by 95 per cent since the late 1960s, not long after the release of Mary Poppins, the Disney classic featuring the soot-faced vocal stylings of a chimney sweep played by Dick Van Dyke. 

 

"I gave him my flashlight and told him where to look," Warkentin said. "He stuck his head in there and had a look — he thought it was pretty wild."

It used to be the case that chimney swifts nested deep inside the rotten, hollowed-out trunks of dying old growth trees. They build bracket nests using twigs and saliva, which they stick to the sides of vertical surfaces. As forests were cleared for developments, the birds adapted to urban environments by nesting in chimneys but that habitat is disappearing as well.

Modern furnace guidelines generally suggest building owners cap or line old chimneys to prevent anything from getting inside. Over time, chimneys have also been torn down, replaced or fallen into varying states of disrepair, jeopardizing the future of the chimney swift species.

'The way of the dodo'

"It's a bit of a different angle than what we're used to," said Ron Bazin, a Canadian Wildlife Service species-at-risk biologist, because the conservation effort focuses on human-built structures, not a natural environment. "The way of the chimney is going the way, hopefully not the way of the chimney swift, but the way of the dodo."

Chimney swift

They used to nest inside dead and dying old growth trees. They made the leap to chimneys when we started to cut down forests and build towns and cities. (Tim Poole)

Bazin sits on the steering committee of the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative (MCSI), which is managed in large part by habitat stewardship and outreach co-ordinator Tim Poole.

A number of chimney swifts used to call the smoke stacks atop the Old Grace Hospital in the Wolseley neighbourhood home. It was demolished in 2013 with plans to turn the land into a housing co-op.

A free-standing chimney was propped up on site last August for the birds as a temporary solution, Poole said. The province has committed to re-creating habitat for the birds in the future, and Poole said the original designs for the co-op include a chimney.

Poole said the population decline has coincided with similar trends emerging in other aerial insectivore bird species. Barn swallows, who also primarily rely on a diet of flying insects, have also gone through dramatic declines in Canada.

Chimney Swifts, Winnipeg

The inspector confirmed it was chimney swifts, a threatened species in Manitoba and Canada, that had taken up residence in Doerksen's chimney. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

It's hard to say whether there is a common factor leading to declines in those species, but Poole said the loss of chimney swift habitat is one thing conservationists can work to improve in a targeted manner.

Swift Champions

This year, MCSI is trying something new to get homeowners to conserve the species' habitat.

Building owners who agree to maintain their chimneys for the birds are awarded a Swift Champions plaque and may be eligible for financial aid if the chimney needs to be restored.

"Often with conservation, it's not just sort of expecting loads of people to go out and do great things. Often it's just one or two people who are the trail-blazers, who take the issue forward," Poole said. "It's really the trail-blazing volunteers in different communities in Manitoba who we're looking to acknowledge."

The first Swift Champion awards were handed out in February.

Ron Bazin

Ron Bazin (right) hands a Swift Champions award over to Luc Blanchette and members of the Parish Church in St. Jean Baptiste, Man., on Feb. 24. (Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative)

One went to organizers at a church in St. Jean Baptiste, Man., about 80 kilometres south of Winnipeg. Another was awarded to Doerksen and his family.

"They're amazing birds.... They aren't destructive," Doerksen said. "It's not like having robins or pigeons — it's a completely different thing."

Warkentin said when he confirms the presence of swifts in a chimney, he recommends the homeowners stop using their fireplace.

"It's important to me that you don't kill these species just for the sake of having a fire," he said.

For Doerksen, being recognized for sheltering a threatened species is "an amazing feeling." He's eager to get outside and watch the birds boomeranging to and from his chimney this spring.

Chimney SWift

Tim Poole with the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative says the birds have been on the decline since the late 1960s. (Tim Poole)

"Usually if you have [a wild animal] in your home you call an exterminator," Doerksen said. "In this case, it's something we're really going to do our best to protect."


Think you have swifts in your chimney? Contact Tim Poole at the Manitoba Chimney Swift Initiative to learn more about the species or to have your home inspected.

Follow Bryce Hoye on Twitter or send your sciency story ideas to bryce.hoye@cbc.ca